Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Power of Encouragement, Part 4

On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was asked to come from the US Capitol Building, where he had just presided over a session of the Senate, to the White House. Steve Early, President Franklin Roosevelt's press secretary, who had telephoned, was clear that it was urgent.

Once he arrived at the White House, Truman was taken to the second floor private quarters where Eleanor Roosevelt, Franklin's wife, awaited him. David McCullough, in his masterful biography of Truman, writes about what happened next:
Mrs. Roosevelt stepped forward and gently put her arm on Truman's shoulder.

"Harry, the President is dead."

Truman was unable to speak.

"Is there anything I can do for you?" he said at last.

"Is there anything we can do for you," she said. "For you are the one in trouble now."
I suspect Mrs. Roosevelt said this for two reasons:

(1) No matter what decisions leaders take, there will always be those who question their wisdom, integrity, qualifications, even their sanity. Eleanor Roosevelt knew that. She had observed at close-hand just how vicious critics can be toward leaders.

(2) Even more importantly, she had also seen the terrible burdens that can go with leadership. She knew that leaders, even those with whom we may disagree most of the time, need our encouragement. That's because we all have a stake in the success of our leaders---whether they exercise leadership over our PTA, church, labor union, business, college, or country.

This isn't new wisdom. In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, God tells the Israelite leader, Moses, that he must encourage his successor, Joshua:
"Encourage him, for he is the one who will secure Israel's possession of [the promised land]. (Deuteronomy 1:38)
Later, Moses, who knows that he will soon die, tells the people:
"But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over [the Jordan River] at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see." (Deuteronomy 3:28)
In the New Testament portion of the Bible, there are numerous exhortations in the letters of Paul to the members of first century churches to pray for and be supportive of leaders, be they in government or in the churches themselves.

The fact is that leaders, whether those gifted in its arts, or those who ambitiously crave leadership and its varied "glories," or those forced into leadership though preferring to be foot soldiers or peons, all learn a common lesson: Leadership is demanding.

One reason that leadership demands so much is that no matter what decisions leaders take, there will always be someone who thinks they've messed up. And usually, leaders' critics don't keep quiet. The average leader gets an earful of discouragement at least once a week. I'm convinced that when we encourage our leaders, we help them to become better leaders, lifting their spirits and enabling them to confront their challenges with a positive frame of reference.

It's especially important for Christians to encourage leaders. One reason I say this is that so many Christians appear to be negative, judgmental, and cranky. It's both jarring and refreshing for leaders (and others) to run into Jesus-Followers who are instead, affirming and compassionate.

Another and more important reason that Christians should encourage leaders can be found in these strange words of Jesus:
"You [Jesus-Followers] are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot." (Matthew 5:13)
In Jesus' time, salt had two basic functions: to season foods and to act as a preservative. From Jesus' words, I take it that Christians aren't to engage in strong-arm tactics, imposing their worldviews on everybody else. Nor are we to be carping, whiny, petty critics.

Instead, like pinches of salt shaken onto the life of the world, we can, bit by bit, change the world's "taste." We do that by embodying and giving voice to the loving Lordship of Christ.

I also surmise from Jesus' words that Christians are to act to preserve "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, [whatever is of] excellence...anything worthy of praise" (Philippians 4:8) in our world.

So, a few suggestions on how we can be encouraging to leaders.

We can express appreciation for their accomplishments. Earlier this year, the school board in our district had to find a new superintendent. I knew that the members had worked hard on this important decision. Ultimately, they chose a person I'm certain will do a great job. He has a good record in education, possesses common sense, is a hard worker, and has boundless creativity and energy. (He happens to be a friend of mine. So I know of whence I speak, as they say.) When I learned of the school board's decision, I picked up the phone and called each member to congratulate them on making what I thought was an excellent choice...even the ones I don't know. Later, a staffer at the school district's main office told me that she was sure the board members had appreciated my call. Typically, she said, the only people to call them from the community are those who complain or who want something from them.

We can offer our help. You're no doubt familiar with the 80-20 Rule. This rule---an observation, really---says that in any given organization, twenty per cent of the people will do eighty per cent of the work, twenty per cent of the conrtributors will do provide eighty per cent of the funding, and so on. Many leaders observe this to be true and it's a real downer for them, especially in volunteer organizations like churches and social service agencies. You will give tremendous encouragement to leaders if you make a decision to break this rule. Help your leader, in whatever context, by lending a helping hand.

Go out to lunch with a leader. Okay, you and I likely can't do that with Presidents, governors, CEOs, university administrators, bishops, or popes. (I can't imagine that I'll ever have a pastrami sandwich with the Pontiff.) But we might be able to have lunch with a local school principal, parish pastor, county commissioner, or township administrator. No ulterior motives. Just take them out and offer your friendship.

Last November, I went to lunch with Mike, a member of our congregation. He surprised me when he said, "You spend so much time helping people with the issues in their lives. But what I'd like to know is, 'How is Mark?' What's going on in your life right now?" It was such an encouraging thing for him to say to his pastor.

Finally, and those of you who know me or have read much of what I've written can almost guess what's coming next, pray for leaders. Frank Laubach, founder of a worldwide adult literacy movement, was also a fervent pray-er. In his book, Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World, first published in 1946, Laubach shared some of his passion for praying for world leaders:
We do not "persuade God to try harder" when we pray [for world leaders]; it is our world leaders, our statesmen and church men [sic] whom we persuade to try harder [through our praying]. We help God when we pray. When great numbers of us pray for leaders, a mighty invisible spiritual force lifts our minds and eyes toward God. His Spirit flows through our prayer to them, and He can speak to them directly [italics mine].

We can do more for the world with prayer than if we were to walk into Whitehall, London, or the Kremlin in Moscow, and tell those men what to do---far more! If they listened to our suggestions, we would probably be more or less wrong. But what God tells them, when they listen to Him, must be right. It is infinitely better for world leaders to listen to God than for them to listen to us.

Most of us will never enter the White House and offer advice to the President. Probably he will never have time to read our letters. But we can give him what is far more important than advice. We can give him a lift into the presence of God, make him hungry for divine wisdom, which is the grandest thing one man ever does for another. We can visit the White House with prayer as many times a day as we think of it, and every such visit makes us a channel between God and the president.
Leaders have particularly difficult tasks in American society, where we sometimes value individualism at the expense of the bigger teams of which we're a part. Americans have always been resistant to authority and leaders find it difficult to get people to row in the same direction. Yet, we clearly need leaders. When we encourage them, they become better leaders and every endeavor they lead is more successful for it. That's a win-win situation.

More on encouragement coming...


Alex said...

I'm dying of curiosity. Did my comment on your last blog stimulate today's excellent blog or was it just coincidental dumb luck???

Mark Daniels said...

It was coincidental, but fortuitous. Thanks so much for making the blog part of your morning coffee routine and for your kind comments! God bless you!

Mark Daniels said...

It was coincidental, but fortuitous. Thanks so much for making the blog part of your morning coffee routine and for your kind comments! God bless you!